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Turkey: Terror Laws Undermine Progress on Rights

Kurdish Activists, Students, Journalists Held Under Harsh Laws

(Istanbul) – Turkey needs to end its use of overly broad antiterrorism laws to hold thousands of activists and journalists, who have spoken out or engaged in the non-violent promotion of Kurdish rights, in prolonged detention, Human Rights Watch said today in releasing its World Report 2013. Human Rights Watch identified the key human rights challenges facing Turkey in 2013 and reviewed domestic human rights developments in 2012.

“If the government is serious about its latest moves to address the Kurdish issue in Turkey, freeing the thousands of detained peaceful Kurdish political activists, journalists, human rights defenders, trade unionists, and students would be a good first step,” said Emma Sinclair-Webb, senior researcher for Turkey at Human Rights Watch. “Turkey needs to make human rights a priority in its approach to all of its citizens.”

In its 665-page report, Human Rights Watch assessed progress on human rights during the past year in more than 90 countries, including an analysis of the aftermath of the Arab Spring. The willingness of new governments to respect rights will determine whether the Arab Spring gives birth to genuine democracy or simply spawns authoritarianism in new clothes, Human Rights Watch said.

In Turkey, the cross-party work on a new constitution during 2012 was a positive development, Human Rights Watch said. But tight government control of appointments to the national human rights institution created in March and the ombudsman office established in June undermined confidence in potentially important oversight mechanisms. There are serious concerns about how independent or effective either institution will be in practice.

Turkey’s restrictions on freedom of expression are evident both in its laws and in the pattern of prosecutions and convictions under these laws, Human Rights Watch said. Judicial reform packages passed by the parliament, most recently in June, suspended prosecutions and convictions for some speech offenses, amended penalties for various terrorism laws, and attempted to curb excessive detention on remand, but have not yet had a significant impact. Politicians’ intolerance of dissenting voices – extending as far as criticizing television soap operas – and their willingness to sue for defamation perpetuates a chilling climate for free speech.

The campaign of arrests intensified during 2012 against Kurdish political activists associated with the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), as well as students, journalists, human rights defenders, and trade unionists. While a few well-known people such as the academic Büşra Ersanlı and the journalists Ahmet Şık and Nedim Şener were released from prison after public campaigns and international outcry, they remain on trial for activities amounting to exercising their rights to non-violent expression and association. The human rights defender Muharrem Erbey, members of parliament, and elected serving local BDP mayors have been in prison for over three years.

Impunity for serious human rights violations by state officials remains a huge challenge, Human Rights Watch said. There was no real progress in criminal or parliamentary investigations into the circumstances behind the December 2011 airstrike that killed 34 men and boys near Uludere, close to the Iraqi-Kurdistan border.

Nor was there progress in uncovering the full circumstances behind the 2007 murder of the journalist Hrant Dink or investigating leads that suggest collusion by public officials in the killing. The only progress in the case was the conviction in January of Yasin Hayal for “directing” Ogun Samast, who had already been convicted of the murder in a juvenile court, and some others as accessories to murder.

A more positive development was the October start to the trial of a brigadier general for the murder or disappearance of 13 villagers in Derik, southeast Turkey, in the early 1990s. Human Rights Watch hopes the trial will provide new momentum for criminal investigations into grave human rights violations by the military and state officials in the 1980s and 1990s.

Investigations into police violence lag behind investigations into the victims, whom the police frequently allege resist police orders, Human Rights Watch said. Despite a commitment to reduce domestic violence with a new law designed to protect women from violence, the police and courts repeatedly fail to provide effective protection for women who try to file complaints.

The trial that began in April of the leaders of the 1980 military coup is providing an important opportunity to secure justice for the gross human rights violations committed in its wake, Human Rights Watch said. However, serious fair trial concerns have overshadowed the so-called Sledgehammer trial, in which 324 military personnel were sentenced for plotting a coup over the past decade. The trial has not advanced public confidence in Turkey’s criminal justice system, Human Rights Watch said.

“Despite some moves for reform, the efforts have been patchy, incomplete, and the new human rights mechanisms are under government control and lack independence,” Sinclair-Webb said.

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